Just when observers possibly thought Mount Airy was finished debating sign regulations for the city, officials have taken a closer look and made changes in rules that were adopted in July.
But this occurred only after a lengthy debate by city council members and a 4-1 vote in which Commissioner Jon Cawley was the dissenter.
One of the changes, made in the form of amendments to the Mount Airy Zoning Ordinance, will affect when signs at businesses which don’t meet new regulations must be replaced.
Such signs at existing businesses had been “grandfathered” in with the set of rules adopted in July, which initially were sparked by billboard proliferation in city business corridors.
But the action taken by the commissioners Thursday night will require non-conforming signs to be replaced with conforming ones once an occupancy or use of a certain site has been discontinued for two consecutive years.
This is an increase from the 90-day period specified initially.
One of the concerns early on with the new regulations involved addressing signs at existing businesses, including brand-new ones in some cases, which did not meet height or other specifications, but where bringing those up to code would be a costly proposition.
That led to the grandfather provision and Thursday night’s vote increasing the time to two years for non-conforming signs to be corrected after use of a property has halted.
The sign amendments also include one that shortens, from nine to five hours, the time that signs with electronic changeable-copy displays — which include LED signs and reader boards, must be turned off during night or early morning periods. Instead of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., those signs now must go dark from midnight to 5 a.m.
Another change specifies that electronic messages on those signs be shown for a minimum of eight seconds before switching to another message, shortened from 30 seconds. Eight seconds is the standard for the N.C. Department of Transportation, based on studies to determine the optimum time for preventing driver distraction.
Overall, the amendments stemmed from feedback by the community from the new sign ordinance adopted in July, along with the experiences of city planners since then, which led them to advocate the relaxing of some standards.
While other changes have been made as well, those involving non-conforming signs at existing businesses and the electronic signs drew the most discussion at Thursday’s meeting.
Bad for tourism?
Although Cawley voted in favor of the 26-page sign ordinance that was adopted on July 21, he voted Thursday night against the round of amendments that were approved as a package through one vote by city board members.
Cawley indicated that he’s had a change of heart in the months since, expressing concerns about the impact on local commercial enterprises.
“As I’ve talked to people, I think our arm has gotten a little too long with the business owners,” he said, adding that the city government should have “as few restrictions” as possible on that sector. “I think the devil’s in the details.”
Cawley’s opinion in this regard also surfaced when the board discussed the times when electronic changeable-copy displays must be turned off during nighttime hours to avoid disturbing neighbors.
Such signs are located at churches, hotels and additional locations along with restaurants and other businesses.
Cawley said restricting display hours for signs at businesses undermines efforts by Mount Airy to market itself as a tourism destination. Some tourists might not even be in bed by 1 a.m. and couldn’t see that a restaurant, for example, is open then, he said of the nighttime restriction.
The commissioners debated having different go-dark times for various entities, but eventually settled on the midnight to 5 a.m. rule for all.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, while later voting for the package of changes, also favored leniency where the nighttime displays are concerned.
She said if the sun comes through a window of a home, one can simply close the blinds rather than have this controlled by the government. “Can we not do that?” Brinkley said of dealing with the lighted signs with a live-and-let-live situation she acknowledged might not be popular with everyone.
“I’ll probably get slashed to pieces.”
“Three-quarters of the ones we have are turned off at night,” Planning Director Andy Goodall said of the electronic changeable-copy displays and attempts to restrict their use.
“I know we sent out about 30 letters and that most of them complied,” he said of correspondence with business operators and others regarding the new sign rules.
“But all of them were not happy with it,” the city planner added.
Brinkley also said the city government turns a “blind eye” to rules violations in a lot of areas and suggested to Goodall that this should be done concerning some of the sign restrictions.
“I don’t get paid to have a blind eye,” the planning director responded.
Other sign-related amendments include:
• An increase in the maximum display area of portable changeable-copy signs from 24 square feet to 32 square feet.
• Portable sign messages can now be displayed for up to 30 consecutive calendar days rather than the present seven days.
• The ending of a permit requirement for certain temporary signs, including Type 2 freestanding signs such as banners for special events, and wall-mounted temporary signs.
• Now allowing a permit for one temporary sign per street frontage at a site, which was limited to one sign.
Goodall said a 60-day period has been set aside to allow affected parties to “match up” to the revised rules, which he hopes will be accomplished by mid-February.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.